The Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma (CNO), the third-largest Native American nation in the United States with more than 200,000 tribal members and 10,000-plus associates, has an oral tradition dating back over 13,000 years and a modern business mindset. It has transformed its 10,923 square mile reservation in the southeast corner of Oklahoma into a lucrative business focal point and innovative drone hub.
The CNO had a budget of $1.9 billion in 2020 and manages an array of businesses including 20 gaming sites, three resorts, restaurants, a multi-million-dollar printing company, travel plazas, and ranches and farms encompassing 65,000 acres and 2,100 head of cattle. This summer, a $600 million expansion project will position its casino in Durant to be one of the largest in the country.
The CNO has made also significant investments in emerging aviation technologies, with an emphasis on drones. The CNO’s drone journey began in 2016. Just a few years after the tribal government purchased 44,500+ acres of land in southeastern Oklahoma, it approached James Grimsley to explore creative ways to leverage the land, using advanced technology, for the good of the tribe. At the time, Grimsley was the Associate Vice President for Research at the University of Oklahoma, an aerospace and mechanical engineer with deep ties to the tribe, having grown up within reservation lands. He spent the next year generating a series of game-changing studies and reports on the regulatory, market and business landscape for emerging aviation technologies. Grimsley ultimately left his academic position to become the tribe’s Executive Director of Advanced Technology Initiatives.
Based on Grimsley’s recommendations, the tribe began developing an Emerging Aviation Technology Center with a twenty-five mile long test range on tribal-owned property, acquired a ground-based radar system, and constructed extensive ground infrastructure. The site is unique, as the tribe has jurisdiction over the surface and is able to effectively manage ground risk associated with flight testing. The range’s diverse terrain includes hills and valleys that simulate urban canyons, huge expanses of open space and even a few miles of high voltage power transmission lines, enabling realistic test and evaluation.
Shortly after the tribe completed the original set of feasibility studies in 2017, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) announced the Request for Proposals for the Integration Pilot Program, or IPP, a drone research and development (R&D) collaboration. In 2018, the Nation made history when it became the first and only tribal government of the 574 federally-recognized tribes selected by the FAA as one of the ten original IPP Lead Participants.
During the three-year IPP program, the CNO partnered with leaders in aviation, infrastructure and academia such as Bell Flight, the Intel Corporation INTC +1.1%, the Noble Research Institute, American Electric Power/Public Service of Oklahoma, and Oklahoma State University. Together, they demonstrated quantifiable benefits of drone technology to rural communities. Within the first ninety days in the program, the CNO teamed up with Noble to successfully drop bait into a Boarbuster feral hog trap from a drone, reducing the safety risk to farmers while helping contain this destructive species. Feral hogs cause approximately $2 billion in damage annually to U.S. land and crops by competing for food sources, contaminating water supplies, and transmitting diseases to livestock.
The CNO has racked up a long list of other first-ever accomplishments. Through the IPP, it became the first tribal government the FAA designated as a public aircraft operator (PAO). Normally reserved for government agencies such as the military and law enforcement aviation operations, PAO status allows the tribe to self-certify its drone operations for public operations and missions, a significant time-saver for search and rescue, public safety and R&D flights. In 2019, the CNO received one of the earliest beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) waivers, key to repeatable drone delivery operations. In October 2020, when the IPP transitioned into the BVLOS Expanding Your Operations Needing Drones (BEYOND) program to continue accelerating advanced drone operations, the FAA again selected the CNO as one of only eight Lead Participants. One of the many goals of BEYOND is to enable drone deliveries at scale.
Among other things, the tribe plans to use drones delivery as an equalizer for rural and underserved communities and to dramatically improve quality of life. Aging transportation infrastructure remains a challenge on many federal tribal reservations and other rural communities across the country. There are approximately 1700 miles of state highways within the Choctaw reservation, many of which are substandard and add risk to trips for basic supplies and goods. The tribe also currently operates dispersed Choctaw Country Markets, food distribution centers for local communities, and its own food distribution system to deliver food to elderly and other tribal members that are confined to their homes. Reducing the amount of time on the roads can improve safety, as for the past few years national highway accidents and deaths have trended upwards. The CNO hopes to convert these road trips to air miles through drone deliveries in the future. This work will directly translate to the 56 million acres of land held in trust by the U.S. for various Native American tribes and individuals, in addition to about one-fifth of the U.S. population that lives in rural areas.
June 2021 was a big month for the Nation. The FAA chose it to participate in a ground-breaking BVLOS Aviation Rulemaking Committee (ARC). Other ARC members include heavy hitters such as L3 Harris, T-Mobile, Boeing Insitu, Skydio, to name a few. Through the ARC, the tribe will provide regulatory recommendations, due in the next six months, to normalize safe, scalable, economically-viable, and environmentally-safe drone delivery operations. That same month, the U.S. Economic Development Administration awarded the CNO a $4 million CARES Act Recovery Assistance grant to add an operations center onto its Emerging Aviation Technology Center.
In the meantime, the Nation remains open for business. Industry partnership opportunities abound for original equipment manufacturers that need to flight test, academic researchers, end users and operators (utility companies for example) that desire to address unique drone applications, and airspace management technology and services industries. While much work remains to be done before drone deliveries become part of our daily lives, the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma’s bold and ambitious vision for the future of drone delivery and its R&D platform will eventually bring drone deliveries to your town, or to one near you.